There’s no denying it; movies are expensive, and now more than ever. It isn’t uncommon for a production company to drop $200 million dollars on a film production, and not without good reason either. As long as you have the right actor, director, or IP — that can be all it takes to make your huge investment back and more. But what about those aspiring directors that can’t afford to make a movie about your favorite superhero, or hire any top-name actors? For directors with a budget, there’s the indie market. Low cost, low reward (if you’re lucky).
There are some exceptions, however — times when a low budget feature manages to perform way past expectations. This rare occurrence is what turns no-name actors into stars, and first-time directors into legends. There may be some breakout indie movies out there that you’re already familiar with, but you’d be surprised at how many of your favorite films had a much lower budget than you’d expect.
Just to set some rules, this list isn’t ranked simply by lowest budget, but rather just how successful and impactful the films were, given the budget they had to work with. So enough stalling, we’re gonna give you what you came for — here are 15 Low Budget Movies That Became Huge Hits.
15. The Evil Dead (1981) – $350,000
We’ve seen the premise before — a group of young college students go out to some cabin in the woods in search of fun, and instead they’re killed off one by one. But when good friends Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell set out to make The Evil Dead with a small budget of $350,000, they ended up with something truly special. Evil Dead seamlessly blended together various horror movie elements: suspense, atmosphere, and most importantly, lots (and lots) of blood. What made it really special however, were the really over-the-top moments that would range from terrifying to hysterical, at times feeling more satirical than scary.
Possibly even more impressive than the film itself was the filming process. Raimi improvised much of the low-budget production, choosing to film inside of an actual abandoned cabin in the middle of the woods and using his own bootlegged version of a steadicam, which involved mounting the camera on a piece of wood (or a bike). Evil Dead would go on to become a beloved film trilogy (and eventually a TV series), proving that sometimes, all it takes to make a classic on a shoestring budget is some courage and ingenuity.
14. El Mariachi (1992) – $7,000
El Mariachi, a tale of mistaken identity leading a group of hitmen after an innocent musician, is one of the greatest triumphs in independent film history. Director Robert Rodriguez aspired to be a filmmaker from a very young age, making many of his own no-budget films before finally taking the leap and attempting his first real movie with El Mariachi. To gain funds, Rodriguez became a literal guinea pig, partaking in experimental clinical drug testing. This combined with help from his friend and lead actor Carlos Gallardo would amount to a microscopic budget of only $7,000.
Rodriguez used a myriad of tricks to keep costs low while filming, including using condoms filled with fake blood as squibs, and utilizing a wheelchair in place of a camera dolly. To avoid costs of using audio equipment, the film was also shot silent, with actors dubbing their parts in afterward. Despite its minuscule budget and unorthodox directing style, El Mariachi would go on to be the lowest budgeted movie ever to earn over a million dollars at the box office, launching Robert Rodriguez into an extremely successful directing career in the process.
13. Clerks (1994) – $27,575
Clerks is proof that you don’t need tons of action and blood to make a good flick, all you need are interesting characters and well-written dialogue. What really makes this movie impressive isn’t just its script, however, but rather the person that wrote and directed it. Kevin Smith had never directed anything before in his life when he decided to sell off his extensive comic book collection and max out upwards of ten credit cards just to get his eventual $27,575 budget. His risky move paid off.
Despite being shot in black and white, and taking place almost exclusively at the convenient store where Kevin Smith worked, Clerks would be a pleasant slap in the face to moviegoers at the time who may not have realized just how much they needed a breath of fresh air. Convenience store employees Dante Hicks and Randal Graves (as foul-mouthed as they were) spoke to the youth of the early ’90s, offering humorous and sometimes philosophical banter that few other films featured. Combine this with a successful box office run of $3.2 million, and it’s easy to see how Clerks jumpstarted Kevin Smith’s career.
12. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) – $400,000
Ah, Monty Python. Whether you’re a huge fan of theirs or not, there’s no denying the fact that they’ve had a massive influence on the world of TV sketch comedy. With their show Monty Python’s Flying Circus debuting in the UK a whole six years before Saturday Night Live did in the US, Monty Python is still one of the greatest comedy acts of all time. American audiences, however, had no idea who they were at the time, as the Flying Circus program didn’t cross over to the United States until the mid-70s.
North America would get their first taste of Python with their first film And Now for Something Completely Different, but it was met by mixed reviews, and its bizarre British humor fared poorly in the US box office. Then magic hit with Monty Python and the Holy Grail. With its non-stop wacky humor, needlessly beautiful landscapes, and nearly endless amount of quotable lines — Holy Grail was a hit in both the UK and the US, earning $5 million over a $400,000 budget en route to becoming one of the greatest comedies of all time.
11. Eraserhead (1977) – $10,000
Eraserhead, like El Mariachi, is another example of an amateur director working with a micro-budget ($10,000). This time, it was a young David Lynch attempting to get his first feature off of the ground. The film went through a production phase that seemed to go on forever due to financial struggles, and it would eventually take five years to finish entirely. What we ended up getting was a surrealist body horror film that shocked and stunned everyone that watched it.
Though met with obvious criticism from the general audience, the film somehow managed to find success on the indie movie circuit, eventually earning an incredibly impressive $7 million dollars on a minuscule budget of $10,000. While Lynch’s debut release may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it proved that films with experimental and unconventional storytelling were capable of holding their own in a market saturated with the same types of movies. Even famous artist H.R. Giger and renowned director Stanley Kubrick have admitted to being heavily inspired by Eraserhead.
10. Enter the Dragon (1973) – $850,000
Today, Bruce Lee is known as the most celebrated martial arts movie star of all time; but believe it or not, he wasn’t always held in such high regard. While Lee was known as Kato from the TV series The Green Hornet, and his earlier films (Fist of Fury, Way of the Dragon) were big hits in Hong Kong, his movies were relatively unknown in North America until the release of Enter the Dragon in 1973. With a modest budget of $850,000, Enter the Dragon did exceptionally well in the North America, earning $22 million in the US alone.
Viewers and movie critics alike were captivated by both Bruce Lee’s physical prowess as well as his surprising acting chops. Unfortunately, in a tragic turn of events, Bruce Lee died from an allergic reaction from a painkiller given to him by an associate just one month before the release of Enter the Dragon in the United States. While we may have lost Bruce in his prime, and just as he was he was rising up as a huge movie star, the fact that he’s still so fondly remembered today is just a testament to the quality of Enter the Dragon.
9. Super Size Me (2004) – $65,000
While there’s definitely not been a shortage of successful and controversial documentary movies (just ask Michael Moore), it’s not every day that one with a mere budget of $65,000 would garner so much attention. Super Size Me had one simple concept: what would happen if someone ate exclusively at McDonald’s every single day for a month? The answer, apparently, was monstrous ticket sales, as the low-budget documentary was able to rack up an impressive $22.2 million haul.
The production of the film was quite simple, as the director and star (Morgan Spurlock) basically just had to film himself eating fast food and then record the effects of it. Super Size Me demonstrated that with a simple premise, a camera, a couple hundred Big Macs, and a complete disregard for your bodily health, you too can make a blockbuster documentary.
8. Open Water (2003) – $500,000
Smaller-budget films tend to utilize fewer filming locations in an effort to keep their costs down. They might choose to shoot most of their film in a single room, for instance. Open Water takes this idea into an entirely different direction, with the vast majority of the movie taking place in one spot in the middle of the ocean. The plot actually works for this scenario as well, with two scuba divers accidentally left stranded out at sea, desperately trying to make it out alive amidst sharks and dehydration.
Besides the small cast (only two actors for most of the movie) being an obvious money-saver, Open Water had another method of keeping costs low. Instead of using expensive mechanical sharks like in Jaws, or settling for cheap CGI, the crew instead decided to use real-life sharks. Well, now we know where most of that $500,000 budget must have gone to; you’d have to get paid a pretty penny to accept a shark as your co-star. Luckily, this choice paid off, since the movie ended up scoring a healthy $54 million at the box office and absolutely no one got eaten.
7. Napoleon Dynamite (2004) – $400,000
If you want to learn the definition of “cult classic”, look no further than the 2004 sleeper hit Napoleon Dynamite. The movie stars the socially awkward and titular character Napoleon as he attempts to make his way through high school, all the while dealing with his dysfunctional family. This synopsis alone doesn’t do the film justice, of course, as the quirky comedy is chock-full of hilarious moments that have to be seen to really be appreciated.
With a small budget of $400,000 and a quiet but well-received release on the indie film circuit, Napoleon Dynamite was never really meant to be a smash hit. As luck would have it, however, the movie would get picked up and distributed at a larger scale, and — through mostly word of mouth advertising — would end up earning a cool $46.1 million by the end of its run.
6. Halloween (1978) – $300,000
Nowadays, people are very familiar with the slasher movie genre, with super popular horror series Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm St. (and their questionable sequels and remakes) being prime examples of the genre’s success. But before Jason Vorhees and Freddy Krueger were slaughtering promiscuous teens in gory, over-the-top fashion, there was Michael Myers and the indie classic Halloween.
Shot with a mere budget of $300,000, director John Carpenter and co-writer Debra Hill had to get creative during production. Instead of making the killer’s mask from scratch, they purchased a Captain Kirk mask for $1.98 and spray-painted it a haunting blueish white, creating one of the most iconic horror movie masks of all time. As an additional way to save money on costumes, much of the cast was told to wear their own clothes on set. While it wasn’t the first slasher movie ever made — The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was released four years prior — Halloween was the first to successfully introduce the genre to mainstream audiences, earning a whopping $70 million.
5. American Graffiti (1973) – $777,000
There’s something about nostalgia that manages to latch on to people, regardless of how old they are. Capitalizing on the concept is nothing new, of course, as audiences learned back 1973 when American Graffiti was released. Written and directed by George Lucas, American Graffiti is a coming of age story set in the early ’60s, during the end of an era in American society. The film brought viewers back to a time when the youth of America focused heavily on driving hotrods and meeting girls — before the loss of innocence that would come with the assassination of JFK and the start of the Vietnam War.
It couldn’t have come at a better time, as it was massively well received, earning an incredible $140 million dollars against a mere $777,000 budget. The success of the film would allow Lucas to cobble together the finances on a passion project of his called Star Wars (you may have heard of it). American Graffiti would also feature a young Harrison Ford, whose part in the film would eventually lead to his breakout role in Star Wars as Han Solo.
4. Rocky (1976) – $1.1 Million
You might be thinking, “Wait, what’s Rocky doing here?” And while it may be the highest budgeted movie on this list ($1.1 million), there’s a reason for its appearance. Sylvester Stallone’s screenplay for Rocky caught the attention of United Artists, but while they agreed to fund the film, they initially wanted to some changes. Sylvester was a relatively unknown actor at the time, so the company wanted to give the lead role over to a more well-known actor — Marlon Brando being among the suggested options.
Sylvester stood his ground and insisted that he played the role, having full confidence that the movie would be a success. United Artists would eventually make a compromise by allowing Stallone to play the lead, but also by cutting the budget considerably. Another one of the company’s films — the high-budgeted New York, New York — was used as collateral for any losses that Stallone’s film might face. Ironically, New York, New York would end up being a flop, while Rocky went on to earn an astonishing $225 million. The rest, as they say, is history.
3. Mad Max (1979) – $350,000
Nobody does dystopian action flicks quite like George Miller, creator of the Mad Max series. With a successful franchise spanning nearly 40 years — and its most recent addition winning several Academy Awards and going down in the eyes of many as the best film of 2015 — it’s surprising to think that it all started with an ambitious independent film with a budget of just $350,000. When the original Mad Max was first released in Australia in 1979, its intense car chases and borderline gratuitous violence immediately attracted a cult following.
Mad Max was filmed in Australia, partly because Miller lived there, but mostly because the cost of filming was much smaller compared to what it would be in the US. In order to continue keeping costs down, they decided to hire fresh new actors that no one had seen before, most notably the now famous (and infamous) Mel Gibson, playing the lead role of Max. The film would be greeted with huge success in North America, eventually making over $100 million dollars worldwide and inspiring a franchise of epic proportions.
2. The Blair Witch Project (1999) – $60,000
The Blair Witch Project; if ever there was a film that proved that all you need is a good gimmick to be successful, then this is it. The found footage genre is often seen by most film critics and moviegoers today as something of a cheap trick. After all, anyone can just run around with a camera and pretend that their being chased by a demon, right? Well, when audiences first saw Blair Witch, they hadn’t seen anything like it before. And believe it or not, many moviegoers actually thought it was real.
Of course, this was by design. The film had an extensive marketing campaign intent on tricking people into believing that the movie actually consisted of found footage from some students that had gone missing. It was also the first film to successfully use the internet to advertise, with a website further pushing the idea that the events in the movie really did take place. As for the film itself? Whether it’s actually any good or not is still up for debate to this day. Still, it’s undeniable that a $60,000 movie managing to earn $248.6 million is remarkable.
1. Paranormal Activity (2007) – $11,000
Okay, forget about The Blair Witch Project. There’s a new king of ridiculously successful gimmick movies, and it’s called Paranormal Activity. Where Blair Witch minimized costs by having some college students run around with a camera, Paranormal Activity took it a step further by leaving the camera stationary via home-security cameras. So how did a micro-budget movie about a young couple hearing noises in their house for 90 minutes become so popular? It’s an answer you’ve heard already: the marketing.
The movie was toured around at colleges and smaller venues, the audience reaction was filmed and used in the film’s advertising, before giving the movie a wide release. The campaign worked shockingly well, with the $11,000 film eventually making a staggering $193.4 million at the box office. This isn’t the craziest part, though. Usually, you’d expect a gimmick like this to work once, as even the Blair Witch sequel took years to get made and vastly underperformed. But somehow, Paranormal Activity ended up releasing five sequels over the next eight years, each met with great success. Despite the questionable quality of the film, to its credit, there’s yet to be another low-budget film to top its success.
It’s crazy how much some directors were able to do with so little. Were you surprised to see some of your favorite flicks on this list? Were there any that we missed? Let us know in the comments!
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